Friday, 18 January 2013

Jan Palach

Jan Palach memorial in Faculty of Arts, Prague

On Wednesday the Czechs recognized a new national day - Jan Palach Day. With it they remember the sacrifice of Jan Palach, who on 16th January 1969  set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square. Palach died of his injuries on 19th January. 

In an interview with Prague Radio Jaroslava Moserova, the burns expert who tended Jan Palach when he was admitted to hospital, Palach was keen to ensure that the true reason for his self immolation:
"It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, all the decent people who were on the verge of making compromises."

The outpouring of national grief at his funeral seemed to indicate that Jan Palach had succeeded at least for a time, however it was not to last at least not publicly. As communism tightened its grip on the country and set out to erase Palach's name from the nation's memory, few people were willing or able to openly defy the authorities. Palach's gravestone was removed from Olsany cemetery, but still people left candles and flowers. In 1973 the body was exhumed and cremated.  

Despite all the authorities' efforts Palach remained a symbol in people's hearts. In 1989 on the twentieth anniversary of his death a Jan Palach Week was called by a number of opposition groups including Charter 77. The series of demonstrations that followed between 15th and 20th January were suppressed, but can be said to be the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. Jan Palach's sacrifice at last was having the effect he desired. 
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Saturday, 12 January 2013

Kafka's Prague

English: 3:4 Portrait crop of Franz Kafka
English: 3:4 Portrait crop of Franz Kafka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The author Franz Kafka was born in Stare Mesto (The Old Town) in Prague, was educated there, lived and worked there. His grave, together with those of his parents, is in the New Jewish Cemetery. His world was almost entirely limited to a few square miles of the city.

Kafka wrote of his native city "this loving mother has claws; he who would liberate himself, would have to set her on fire at both Vysehrad", so the author had at best a love/hate relationship with town. Maybe one might say that it was precisely this sense of entrapment and alienation that informs his books. As a Jew in 19th century Prague he would not have felt accepted by the Germans, whose language he spoke and wrote in, nor by the Czechs, who were experiencing a resurgence sense of Slavic nationalism. Nevertheless when I read Metamorphosis for my magic realism blog   I was struck by how Czech Kafka's surreal dark humour seemed. 

Franz Kafka monument
Franz Kafka monument (Photo credit: John McNickname)
If you are visiting Prague and are interested in Kafka I suggest you visit the Franz Kafka Bookshop, near the Old Town Square, and buy yourself The Guide to Franz Kafka's Prague (only 20 kc), and take a walk through the old town to discover Kafka's Prague for yourself. Forty nine sites are identified, including Kafka's homes, schools and workplaces.  


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